Author Struggles to Stay Removed from Slave Trade With $50 and a plane ticket to Haiti, one can buy a slave. This was just one of the difficult lessons writer Benjamin Skinner learned while researching his book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery. He discusses the challenges of writing about this disturbing institution.
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Author Struggles to Stay Removed from Slave Trade

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Author Struggles to Stay Removed from Slave Trade

Author Struggles to Stay Removed from Slave Trade

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MADELEINE BRAND, host: This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand. ANTHONY BROOKS, host: And I'm Anthony Brooks. Here's a fact that shouldn't be. There are now more slaves on the planet than in any time in human history. Here's another one. Today, human traffickers bring more slaves into the U.S. than slave traders transported into to pre-independent America. How can this be? Slavery is banned around the world and was abolished in the U.S. a century and a half ago. But writer Benjamin Skinner found out that if you have a hundred bucks and a plane ticket to Haiti, you can buy a human being. Benjamin Skinner is the author of a new book "A Crime So Monstrous, Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery." And he joins us from New York. Welcome to the program, Benjamin Skinner. Mr. BENJAMIN SKINNER (Author): Thanks. Good to be with you. BROOKS: You write that slavery exists today on an unprecedented level around the world, in Africa, in Europe, Asia, South Asia, here in the U.S. What do we mean by slavery in this modern age? Mr. SKINNER: Essentially what we're talking about is what we were talking about 150 years ago - those that are forced to work under threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence. The critical difference is that today slavery is illegal everywhere. BROOKS: Now, to understand how people are bought and sold into slavery, you traveled to 12 different countries, you met with slaves, survivors, and the traffickers that sell them. And I want to talk to you about Haiti. You went there and you found a slave broker and actually negotiated with him. Tell us about that. Mr. SKINNER: In Haiti, when I was there, which was the fall of 2005, there was no functional government. The U.N. peacekeepers were basically keeping order. Parts of it were like the Wild West. However, the part where I went to, to find this individual, was a very clean street in broad daylight. And I pulled up in a car, rolled down the window, somebody came over and said do you want to get a person? BROOKS: Now, you actually taped that conversation, and we have that tape we can actually play for listeners right now. So let's just listen to a little bit of that negotiation. SOUNDBITE OF TAPE Mr. SKINNER: Would it be possible - how quickly do you think it would be possible to bring a child in? Somebody who could clean, somebody who I'd give a place to stay. I'd take care of food and a place to stay. But I'm wondering how much that would cost. Unidentified Woman: For him to go out and find someone to do that? Mr. SKINNER: Yeah, yeah. Unidentified Woman: Okay. (Foreign language spoken) Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken) Unidentified Woman: That would be a hundred U.S. Mr. SKINNER: A hundred U.S.? SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER Unidentified Woman: Which is 800 Haitian. Mr. SKINNER: Eight hundred Haitian. That seems like a lot. That thing is like a lot. I mean, could you bring it down? Your fee? Could you bring your fee down to 50 U.S.? BROOKS: So Benjamin, where did that negotiation end up? Mr. SKINNER: First of all, I have to just comment on the tone that you heard in there. BROOKS: Sure. Mr. SKINNER: It was - the thing that struck me more than anything afterwards was how incredibly banal the whole transaction was. It was as if I was negotiating on the street for a used stereo. We agreed to a price of $50, but I told him not to make any moves. I had a principle throughout this book, whenever I was talking to traffickers, that I would not pay for human life. And I didn't. BROOKS: I read in the book, too, about this meeting with this trafficker in Haiti, and you have the option of sort of negotiating what kind of slave. In other words, someone is just going to take care of your house or perhaps you're interested in someone who is going to also provide sexual favors. So there's all different kinds of slaves as well that he would make available. Mr. SKINNER: I said, would it be possible to have somebody who would be a partner - which is the term that he used. And my translator made it clear that this meant sexual partner - as well as a - as a house slave, somebody who would cook and clean? And he didn't think twice about it and said of course. And at that point, I said I wanted a girl, and we started talking about a nine-year-old girl. BROOKS: My God. How is modern slavery different than the slavery we read about in history books? Is it different at all? Mr. SKINNER: It is absolutely different in the sense that in 1850 a slave would cost roughly $30-40,000. That's, you know - in other words, it would have been like investing in a Mercedes. Today you can go to Haiti and you can buy a nine-year-old girl to use as a sexual and a domestic slave for $50. So the devaluation of human life is incredibly pronounced. BROOKS: Now, you write also about this idea of a kind of debt slavery, and this shows up a lot in South Asia. Can you describe that? How does that work? Mr. SKINNER: Sure. That bondage is by far the largest chunk of modern-day slavery worldwide. I spent time, for example, and I go into the details of his life, with a man who I call Ganu(ph); he asked me to change his first name. His slavery began three generations ago when his grandfather took a loan of 73 cents. Three generations later he's still enslaved, forced to work under threat of violence and real violence; his slave master was a serial killer known by local police - and never paid. BROOKS: So three generations of bondage is - can be traced back to a debt of 78 cents? Mr. SKINNER: Seventy-three cents in that case, yeah. BROOKS: You write that there were more than a dozen international conventions and treaties that have been signed that outlaw slavery. Why does it persist? Mr. SKINNER: It persists largely because of government inaction and corruption, because there is a general belief among governments and among the public that slavery no longer exists. BROOKS: Well, I want to ask you about the developed world, specifically the United States. At the beginning of the segment, I read a fact that I pulled from your book: today, human traffickers bring more slaves into the U.S. than slave traders transported into pre-independence America. That's astounding. Mr. SKINNER: The minimum numbers we're talking about here - these are Justice Department and State department estimates - are between 14,500 and 17,500 every year. What that is, essentially, is every half-hour another person becomes a slave in the United States. BROOKS: And how does it break down in terms of what they're doing? What kind of slaves are they? Mr. SKINNER: The slaves in the United States, they're not representative of the slaves in the world at large in that a slim majority are trafficked into commercial sex in the United States - slim majority - around 50 percent. A good deal are enslaved in agricultural or low-level industries. There have been cases of slaves in Florida, orange fields in Texas, in South Texas. Beyond that, there are untold number of slaves, and this is the grayest of gray areas that are trafficked into domestic slavery. BROOKS: You also write about this confusion in your view, and that is in developed countries slavery - when people talk about slavery, they're really just thinking about sex slavery. But that is only a small fraction of the problem, correct? Mr. SKINNER: True. If you take 16 slaves, 15 of them will not be enslaved in commercial sex. BROOKS: I want to ask you a little bit about the personal sort of journey that you went on in researching this book. Before you set out to meet slaves and traffickers, you resolved to maintain a kind of journalistic distance. You write that you would observe but not engage. That must have been very difficult at times for you. Mr. SKINNER: It's one thing when you're planning an effort like this, a project like this, to say this is a work of journalism, I'm not going to interfere with my subjects. It's another thing when you actually see in an underground brothel in Bucharest a young woman who has the visible effect of Down syndrome, who you know is being raped several times a day, and when this girl is offered to me in trade for a used car, and when I walked away from that, that's not an easy thing to do, and to be honest, it stays with me. BROOKS: Well, Benjamin Skinner, it's quite a book. Thanks for coming in to talk about it. Mr. SKINNER: Thank you so much, Anthony. BROOKS: That's Benjamin Skinner. He's the author of the new book "A Crime So Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern-Day Slavery." It's in stores today. And you can read an excerpt of Ben Skinner's book at npr.org.

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